Heritage Classic Brings Tough Roster Decisions

This season has seen the Jets’ management group make some tough decisions by sending
Ondrej Pavelec down to the Moose and having Chris Thorburn and Mark Stuart spend three out
of four games in the pressbox. Another tough decision looms, however, with the Heritage
Classic right around the corner. Does Paul Maurice ice the lineup that gives him the best
chance to win, or do the veterans ‘deserve’ the opportunity to participate in the spectacle that
will be the outdoor game at Investor’s Group Field.

To many fans’ delight (and perhaps surprise), the first game of the season against the Carolina
Hurricanes featured Joel Armia and Ben Chiarot as part of the gameday roster in favour of Chris
Thorburn and Mark Stuart and perhaps signalled a change in philosophy for a team often
criticized for hanging on to aging veterans. The second game of the season in Minnesota,
though, brought the old complaints back as Armia (after a bring-the-fans-to-their-feet penalty kill
in Game 1) and Chiarot were benched in favour of Thorburn and Stuart. That move didn’t look
to work very well with Thorburn contributing an uninspiring fight and Stuart offering up a very
‘Mark Stuart’ type of game. Coach Maurice explained the decision by saying he “felt [he] had left
guys out of the lineup too long last year and they had a difficult time coming in and making an
impact”. Games three and four against Boston and Toronto featured a return to Armia and
Chiarot, so which direction will the team take for this much-hyped fifth game outdoors against
the Oilers?

If Paul Maurice is going to run a rotation with his skaters as he is with his goaltenders thus far,
then it would appear that it is Stuart and Thorburn’s turn, after Armia and Chiarot have played
two in a row. There has been talk in the Winnipeg media that perhaps the Jets will reward their
long-serving veterans with the chance to make some memories on the outdoor ice. Is that the
right move? The Heritage Classic is a special event and, for most of the guys, will probably be a
once-in-a-career opportunity. But the Jets are 2-2 and could really benefit from gaining
momentum and these two points (every two points, really) are important when you play in the
ultra-tight Central Division. The Oilers present a real challenge with their mix of youth and speed
and the generational talent that is Connor McDavid, and giving the nod to Thorburn and Stuart
based on history and intangibles does not give the Winnipeg Jets the best chance to win. In
addition to decreasing the odds of victory, basing hockey decisions on factors other than hockey
ability may send the wrong message to a young team. 

The Jets draft-and-develop model is already facing a challenge with the Jacob Trouba holdout
and if this team declares a roster for Sunday’s game that rewards anything other than the ability
to contribute to the team, what does that say to youngsters like Armia, Andrew Copp, Chase De
Leo going forward? An argument can be made that Ben Chiarot doesn’t represent a huge
upgrade over Mark Stuart and, therefore, Stuart’s presence doesn’t harm the Jets much over his
replacement. But, after the game against the Wild, it is very difficult to make the same argument
regarding Chris Thorburn. I would assume that we will see both of the vets or neither, and
based on the lines at practice Thursdayday, the coaching staff is leaning towards neither. 

Though Saturday’s pre-Alumni game practice kept us guessing, as Chris Thorburn was rotating in on the third line in place of Kyle Connor.

Paul Maurice himself admitted during an Alumni game intermission interview with Ron McLean that he is agonizing over the decision and planned to sleep on it. Here’s hoping he makes the right decision.